Sunday, May 27, 2012

Balance Of Terror

So far the aliens who have appeared in Star Trek are a motley bunch; the salt vampire from The Man Trap; the Thasians, Charlie X; Ruk, What Are Little Girls Made Of?; the children on the duplicate Earth, Miri; Balok, The Corbomite Manouver; the Talosians, The Menagerie, along with the Kalar, and Vina as the green Orion slave girl. 

The Kalar, if you don't remember them for some reason, attack Captain Pike and Vina during a flashback to Rigel VII. They are monsters, in the Doctor Who sense of the word, a mobile obstacle for our hero to defeat. The salt vampire is also a monster, more articulate than the Kalar, but monster status is confirmed by its' inability to curb it's appetite and treat the Enterprise crew as anything other than an all day buffet. Ruk is mobile scenery. He looks weird and reminds the audience they are watching a science fiction programme, but he doesn't contribute much else to his episode; green Vina is the same. The Thasians are dramatic punctuation, a full stop to the plot of Charlie X when Charlie needs to be removed from the Enterprise. Miri, and the other children of the duplicate Earth, are interesting because they have grown up without adult supervision not because they are aliens. Only the Talosians and Balok, are characters in their own right. We understand what drives them and they have recognisable motives and goals.

All of them are one episode creations. It's difficult to imagine even someone as fun as Balok coming back. What could he do for an encore? Delay the Enterprise with a hexahedron, and drink more Tranya? In itself this is not a problem, after being utterly destroyed in their first story the Daleks went on to become the major baddies in Doctor Who. Rewriting characters is easy, look at the way the Ferengi go from 'the new Klingons' to comic relief over a couple of series of Star Trek: The Next Generation but if you are going to introduce a new race of aliens it's nice to get it right on the first attempt.

Which is where the Romulans come in. Balance Of Terror is their d├ębut and the Romulans appear fully formed. A lot of this is down to writer Paul Schneider's decision to use the Roman Empire as inspiration. Broad brush stokes prime the audience with just enough information to make this connection; twin planets named Romulus and Remus, a leader referred to as the Praeter, naming one Romulan Decius, and using the rank of Centurion. The result is a culture which feels solid on the basis of very little information because the audience's knowledge fills in any gaps. It also seems to have guided the actor's performances. Both Mark Leonard, and John Warburton, play their roles in a manner reminiscent of historical epics.

The Romulans are so fully formed in fact, it came as a surprise when I looked up the names of the two leaders and found they don't have any. The relationship between the two, their history, and their place within the Romulan Empire is so well established, it seemed more likely I hadn't been paying attention. Normally a role as large as Mark Leonard's going unnamed would be the sign of a hack writer but here it seems right, even appropriate, that military propriety would stop two close friends using each others names on duty.

The Commander and Centurian are treated as guest stars, not just aliens of the week. This is established the first time the episode cuts to the Romulan ship and we see the Commander and Centurian talking. It's rare to get a scene with none of the major stars, or at least one of the established characters, present. Charlie X doesn't feature a scene with the Thasians talking among themselves about the need to bring Charlie back. The Man Trap doesn't have a scene where Crater tells Nancy she can't keep killing without making people suspicious. Korby and Andrea never get a scene alone in What Are Little Girls Made Of? The Commander and Centurion are treated like Harry Mudd in Mudd's Women when we get to see him plotting with Eve, Magda, and Ruth. The actions of the characters shape the story. Kirk thinks the Romulan Commander is going into a trap when he heads towards a comet tail, then we learn that actually the Commander is setting a trap for the Enterprise, then Kirk's actions in springing his own trap alerts the Romulan Commander, who reacts, and forces Kirk to react when things don't go the way he expected. For want of a better phrase, the Commander and Centurion are written like real people. 

Apparently the Romulans were always in Paul Schneider's script, but whether they were always an off-shoot of the Vulcan race is less clear. It was a brilliant idea, whoever thought of it, and it's what elevates the Romulans to greatness. It makes them irresistible to the production team because, unlike Balok (who required a child actor, and a puppet to be realised on-screen) or Vena as an Orion slave girl (apparently women don't paint themselves green), you have an alien race who can be realised using existing production techniques, and irresistible to the audience because they add a little mystery back to Spock

Fourteen episodes in and familiarity is beginning to blunt Spock's impact. The character is not becoming boring or silly, Nimoy is careful to make sure that doesn't happen, but the initial shock of seeing the guy with the ears, eyebrows, and hair has worn off. Despite his appearance the audience needs to be reminded of his alien nature and the series has fallen into the habit of stopping once a week for a conversation about the difference between humans and Vulcans. Individually these scenes can be good, The Conscience Of The King's conversation between McCoy and Spock about alcohol has some nice lines although it does suggest McCoy gets drunk during the day, but the cumulative effect is a lot of telling, rather than showing. Suddenly we get the scene where Spock taps into the enemy ship's viewscreen and we see the Romulans in all their glory. The first time we've seen anyone else who looks like Spock, and these are baddies. I wonder if any of the original audience though we were about to find out Spock wasn't Vulcan, or that the Vulcan's were conducting some secret war. Regardless, it's odd to get to the end of the episode and realise we have now seen more Romulans than Vulcans.

The appearance of the Romulans also fills in a chunk of backstory about the Star Trek universe. Humans have had the run of the place up to this point. Flying around in their spaceship meeting aliens. We've been going to them, rather than seeing them come to us. The Corbomite Manouver is the only exception. Not only did Balok seek out the Enterprise, but the dummy Balok bluff hinted at the existence of less friendly races. How do you suppose the Romulans reacted to his cube? The Romulans have been quiet since the end of the Human-Romulan war 100 years ago. There's a nice hint they have been expanding their Empire in other directions when the Centurian talks to the Commander and says, “we've seen a hundred campaigns together, and still I do not understand you.” Possibly this is where the invisiblity shield and plasma weapon have come from; captured from enemy ships. Both seem more advanced than the otherwise underpowered and slow Romulan ship.

It's no secret Balance Of Terror is submarine story. Paul Schneider is supposed to have not so much written Balance Of Terror as adapted the film The Enemy Below for television. For a viewer who hasn't seen The Enemy Below the submarine conflict references still come through strongly; turning off equipment to run silent, jettisoning bodies and debris, and, the core of the episode, two Captains attempting to out think each other. Written down it sounds like the sort of war film everyone has sat through on a rainy Sunday afternoon but watched as a Star Trek episode it feels amazingly fresh. Largely this is because Star Trek hasn't done starship conflict before. In fact I am struggling to recall the last time the Enterprise fired its' phasers; I think it was to destroy Balok's cube in The Corbomite Manouver; and that may have been the first time we see them used.

The whole episode is bookended by two scenes showing life on board the Enterprise. In the first a wedding is about to take place and Kirk makes a speech, “Since the days of the first wooden vessels, all shipmasters have had one happy privilege. That of uniting two people in the bonds of matrimony.” At the end of the episode, inevitably, the one death among the crew was the husband to be. Contrasting with the first scene we are also reminded that all shipmasters have one unhappy privilege; notifying families of the death of a loved one.

Enterprise crew deaths: One. The unfortunate groom to be Lieutenant Robert Tomlinson.
Running total: 20

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